Twitter ex-employees accused of spying on Saudi dissidents

Federal prosecutors have filed charges against two former Twitter employees, who are accused of working on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to access account information of dissidents.

Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah each worked for the company from 2013 to 2015. The complaint alleges that Alzabarah, a site reliability engineer, improperly accessed the data of more than 6,000 Twitter users.

Abouammo, who handled media partnerships for the Middle East region, is alleged to have received $300,000 from a Saudi official as well as a Hublot watch, valued at least at $20,000. Abouammo is accused of repeatedly accessing the private information of a prominent critic of the Saudi government, including an email address and phone number.

Even after leaving the company, Abouammo allegedly contacted friends at Twitter to facilitate Saudi government requests, such as for account verification and to shutter accounts that had violated the terms of service. Abouammo, an American citizen, was recently arrested in Washington state.

Both men are accused of failing to disclose their work on behalf of a foreign government. Abouammo is also charged with falsifying a record to impede an investigation. According to an affidavit, he gave the FBI a phony invoice in an effort to explain the payments he had received from the Saudi official.

Alzabarah is also accused of accessing the prominent dissident’s account information, including his IP address. The dissident ultimately filed a formal complaint with Twitter in September 2015, alleging that his account had been hacked.

On Dec. 2, 2015, Twitter confronted Alzabarah about his improper accessing of user information. According to the affidavit, he conceded he had accessed accounts but said he had done so out of curiosity. He was placed on leave, his laptop was confiscated, and he was escorted from the building.

FBI agents began to surveil Alzabarah, and watched him outside his home in San Bruno, Calif. Alzabarah and his wife and daughter left the country the following day, boarding a plane for Saudi Arabia, and sent an email from the plane submitting his resignation.

Alzabarah then went to work for a charitable foundation with ties to the Saudi royal family, and has not returned to the U.S. since then.

The complaint also charges a third individual, Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi citizen who worked for a social media marketing firm that worked for the Saudi royal family. Almutairi is alleged to have met Alzabarah and connected him to Saudi officials, and is also charged with failing to disclose his work for a foreign government.

In a statement, Twitter said it was grateful to the FBI and the Department of Justice for their work on the case.

“We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service,” the company said in a statement. “Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees. We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.”

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